When Romelu Lukaku came to San Siro from Old Trafford, there were question marks about his ability. Everything pointed to how desperate Antonio Conte was for his man. Multiple bids went in and Inter did face rejections. But by the end of it all, they got their man.
Even at that point, no one was sure about Lukaku. At Manchester United, the Belgian took criticism for not scoring enough in big games and for having a poor first touch. But no one blamed the club and other players for a lack of service for the former Chelsea man.
But Lukaku’s recent performance at Slavia Prague for Inter would show exactly why Conte was desperate for him. His link-up with Lautaro Martinez means that there is no lack of service and the constant crosses from the wing-backs helps him too.
Against Slavia, Lukaku played five key passes, won three aerial duels and completed three dribbles. He also got one goal and got two assists in what was his best performance of the season. It came when Inter absolutely needed a win to go through.
Having a workhorse in Martinez around him has been of massive help. Their link-up has been key to Inter’s fortunes. At United, he never got a partner or a helping hand in attack. He found himself isolated up front, even though he did score 42 times in all competitions.
In the 2017-18 season though, Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic system had settled in. United played only 9.9 key-passes per game that season. In the 2018-19 campaign, it only rose to 10.1. At Inter so far though, the nerazzurri have been playing 12.8 key passes per game. That’s a big improvement from how things were at United.
At Everton in the 2016-17 campaign, the Toffees played more key-passes per game than United did in the two seasons – 10.4. Under Ronald Koeman Everton played an attacking brand of football with Lukaku the centre of their attack, and he scored 25 Premier League goals.
At United Lukaku was not the focus of the side but at Inter, there has been a perfect balance. Conte has also nailed his system down very early.
The idea has been to not just use the front two. It has been to use the more advanced midfielder in Stefano Sensi, Roberto Gagliardini or Matias Vecino. The wing-backs in Cristiano Biraghi on the left or Antonio Candreva on the right know their jobs. They have to cross the ball constantly to the front two.
Inter have played the third-highest number of long balls per game this season- 33.5. They have also been playing the second-highest number of crosses per game in the Serie A – 5.5.
This has worked to Lukaku’s strengths. His build has been benefitting from it. Which is why Lukaku has won the fifth-highest number of aerial duels per game this season – 3.5. He is never isolated like he was at Old Trafford and at Inter he has been playing 22.4 passes per game, with 13 goals in 17 games.
It was in the 2018-19 season when things began to go awry for Mourinho. There were fundamental defensive issues that weren’t addressed in the summer and the mood at the club had become very negative.
But if there’s anything that has changed, it is the system. Lukaku clearly hasn’t. The club has changed. The negative atmosphere has dissipated from around him. That negative feeling about him had persisted even before he came from Everton.
Videos about his bad touches went viral, showing how ruthless social media is. It made Lukaku look like a poor player. Even the minutest of his errors were magnified. Every fan analysed it like they were Sir Alex Ferguson. That is what social media does – everyone pretends to be an expert. There is a thirst for perfection.
Every player has his faults. But it all comes down to which system covers up his errors in the best way possible. Every player’s example shows that.
The love he is getting at Inter is because Conte has helped him cover up the faults in his game. That never happened at United. In a scapegoating culture that has been evolving at United since 2013, it is very easy to throw the blame around at easy targets. Lukaku was meant to be that easy target the very day he arrived.